Adnan Syed, who was convicted in 2000 for the murder of his girlfriend Hae Min Lee, may have a chance for a new trial. His case came to national attention through the hit podcast ‘Serial’, and was later revisited by an HBO documentary. There was a substantial question whether the conviction against Mr. Syed was correct, though the appeal had been upheld. However, a new appeal led to a ruling in 2018 that he should be entitled to a new trial, but that decision was reversed by the highest Court in Maryland.
Earlier this year, Mr. Syed’s attorneys approached the Sentencing Review Unit at the Baltimore prosecutor’s office, and asked them to conduct a new review of the case. Subsequent to that investigation, prosecutors indicate there is new evidence that should entitle Mr. Syed to having the prior conviction set aside, and be given a new trial.
During the investigation, prosecutors (basically a conviction integrity unit), uncovered additional evidence that had not been disclosed to the defense. Most notably, different suspect were known to the prosecutors, they were not properly ruled out, and related information was not given to the defense. There was another witness who said the suspects had motive to kill the victim, and threatened her, saying he would make her disappear, that he would kill her. Obviously that is relevant evidence to Mr. Syed’s defense, and should have been turned over to his attorneys prior to the trial. This type of evidence is known as ‘Brady’ evidence, and prosecutors have a duty to disclose.
Mr. Syed has always maintained his innocence, and there were always questions surrounding his conviction. It looks likely that he will get a chance to have another day in court, and increases the likelihood of finding out what actually happened to Ms. Lee.
Robert Kraft, the billionaire owner of the Patriots was charged in Palm Beach County with soliciting prostitution for allegedly going into a massage parlor and receiving sexual contact. His attorneys challenged the case on many fronts, but ultimately succeeded by attacking the validity of the search warrant that allowed them to place a video camera in the private areas of the massage parlor. The court was troubled by the fact that the cameras would film people in an intimate setting, many of which may not have been breaking the law. The State argued that the warrants were justified, in part because they could help fight human trafficking, but no trafficking charges were filed in relation to these cases.
The court suggested that such a warrant could potentially be possible if it included enough restrictions to prevent filming innocent individuals, but that it fell far short. Placing a video camera in such an intimate place is extremely invasive, and is the kind of thing that troubled the court greatly, and the court suppressed all the evidence obtained through these searches, which covered Kraft and several other co-defendants that were caught up in the same operation.
The State appealed the court’s ruling, and the case was on hold until the recent decision by the 4th DCA appellate court that agreed with the trial court. The court wrote, “The type of law enforcement surveillance utilized in these cases is extreme,” and set a precedent that will set limits on the use of “sneek and peek” warrants. The State declined to appeal the case to the Florida Supreme court, making today’s announcement that they were dropping the charges inevitable. Several other defendants, in multiple counties, who still had charges pending will see their cases dropped, and many of the others involved had already gotten their charges dropped by completion of a diversion program. Most importantly, this case, between the trial judge and the appellate court, has sent a strong message against law enforcement doing invasive searches like the sneek and peek warrants.
David Puy, and 18-year old in West Boca Raton, made a post on Snapchat that said, “On my way, school shooter!” He says he was actually on his way to meet friends for dinner, and meant it as a joke. There’s no indication he had nefarious plans, or even owned any guns, but posting the language that sounds like a threat made it a crime. The fact that he claims to be joking does not make a difference under Florida’s latest version of the threat law, updated after the shooting a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Puy challenged the law unsuccessfully at the trial level, and the case is now on appeal. It’s’ believed to be the first to challenge the Constitutional validity of the new version of Florida law. The issue is whether or not his words, which do not meet the historical definition of a true threat, are protected by the First Amendment. The appellate court is scheduled to hear oral arguments March 10, though it will likely be several months before the ruling is released.
I suppose it is inevitable with the expansion of social media and connectivity nowadays: every juror comes into the courtroom with a habit of using their phones, and that can be hard to break. In every trial, the court tells the jurors not to discuss the case with themselves, or others. In a long trial, the court remind the jurors every time they take a break, which can add up to dozens of reminders over the course of a trial. Sometimes, the message still doesn’t sink in.
Just a few weeks ago, the New York Court of Appeals, the highest appellate court in New York, upheld the overturning of a verdict in a high profile murder case against Dr. Robert Neulander, a prominent doctor in central New York that had been convicted of killing his wife. It wasn’t due to the facts of the case, rather it came out near the end of the trial that one of the jurors had been texting throughout the trial with family and friends, to the tune of some 7000 text messages. The only surprising thing was the the trial court had allowed the verdict to stand. “The extensiveness and egregiousness of the disregard, deception and dissembling occurring here leave no alternative but to reverse,” said the court in a unanimous ruling. The juror had even deleted some texts and browser history when her conduct was disclosed.
The court has no choice but to overturn a verdict in such a case, as the confidence would be eroded in the system if the court allowed jurors to so directly (and flagrantly) violate its instructions. A lawful verdict requires the court to hold jurors to their oaths.
Another case of wild juror misconduct was reported today, also in New York, and again the trial court allowed the initial verdict to stand. One of the jurors started having romantic feelings for one of the State’s witnesses, a gang member who had agreed to testify against the defendant to consideration in his own case. The juror wrote a letter to the witness, and a romance blossomed, in spite of the court’s instruction for the jury to avoid contact with anyone involved in the case. She also wrote the prosecutor to ask the State to take it easy on her beau, and to its credit, the DA’s office notified the Defense. Still, the trial court didn’t see a problem with the juror falling for the State’s witness, and let the verdict stand. The appellate court cited the Neulander case, saying “as the Court of Appeals recently reminded us in People v. Neulander, ‘nothing is more basic to the criminal process than the right of an accused to a trial by an impartial jury.'” Sometimes the opinions write themselves. Apparently the juror and the witness made plans to marry… so, silver lining, I guess?
Former Hamilton County judge Tracie Hunter was convicted in September of 2014 for having an unlawful interest in a public contract, for using her office to get documents to help her brother. In December of that year, she was sentenced to 6 months in jail, but she has remained free while her appeals and post-conviction cases have been going on. Her direct appeals were denied, upholding the conviction, and her last resort, a federal petition for habeas corpus has been denied, and the stay pending its appeal has now been lifted. She has a hearing July 18 before the Hamilton County Common Pleas court, where she could be ordered to begin serving her sentence. Her attorneys have filed a new motion to waive the jail, saying medical conditions involving her back and her arthritis prevent her from being able to serve a jail sentence, but that is a hail mary attempt to try to get the judge to allow her to remain at liberty… the same judge who ordered that she serve her sentence back in 2016, before the Federal stay went into effect. The chances she can avoid jail much longer are narrowing rapidly.
Cosby, known as America’s dad for his reign as the patriarch of the fictional Cosby he portrayed on a top-rated sitcom in the 1980’s, will surely appeal. There are a couple of substantial issues to be hashed out on appeal. First is the trial judge’s decision to allow the statements Cosby made in the civil case to be presented in the criminal trial. Cosby claimed he had only agreed to testify in the civil case pursuant to an agreement that the state would not prosecute, essentially that he was immune from prosecution. Cosby’s wife has recently indicated she wants to address a possible dispute the judge had with the former prosecutor that allegedly made the immunity agreement with Cosby. Also, among other things, Cosby will challenge the court’s decision to allow five other alleged victims to testify in this case. During his first trial, only one other accuser testified, and the trial ended with a mistrial due to a hung jury. While the decision to allow similar fact evidence before the jury is generally left to the discretion of the trial judge, his change of heart to allow four more accusers will certainly be scrutinized. It appears Cosby will have to remain behind bars unless he scores on his appeal.
An appellate court decision came down this week that ruled that none of the lettering on your car tag can be obscured, even the “myflorida.com”. This appears to be a more strict interpretation of the law than had previously been enforced, due to language changes in the statute, and probably means that most license plate frames will be in violation. It’s not a defense if the dealer put it on there! Nor is it a defense for your tint being too dark if the dealer does it… These little nuisance violations can give the cops probable cause to stop you, even if you’re driving fine, and can result in expensive tickets!
Steven Avery, whose case was documented on “Making a Murderer” had filed a motion for new trial, alleging new evidence that would support granting him a new trial. The trial court denied the motion without a hearing, indicating that Avery’s attorney Katherine Zellner, had not met the legal standard for that type of motion in Wisconsin. Currently, that ruling is being appealed, but it’s fairly early in the appellate process: Zellner has not filed her brief yet.
Brendan Dassey, the young cousin of Avery, is still fighting to get his verdict overturned. He had gone through the State appeals process, when he then got a positive ruling from a Federal judge, finding his confession was illegally obtained and dismissing the trial result. However, a Federal Appellate court overturned that ruling, reinstating his conviction. He is now petitioning to the U.S. Supreme Court. The SCOTUS only takes a relatively few cases each year, and Wisconsin will likely be filing a brief arguing that there is no issue that needs to be addressed by SCOTUS. If the Supreme Court does not hear the case, Dassey could end up filing for a new trial as Avery has done.
Crimcourts has covered the Knox case extensively, it was an international media sensation that “Foxy Knoxy”, an American student in Perugia, was accused of a horrific murder of her roommate. This was coupled with allegations of a sexual nature, most of which were not based in any fact. The prosecutor who propounded these theories, also will appear in the documentary. It will be worth checking out.
Ana Maria Cardona, the first woman on Florida’s death row for killing her own child, has had her conviction reversed a second time. While the Florida Supreme Court found that ample evidence was presented to allow the jury to find her guilty, the Court ruled that Prosecutors erred by using inappropriate, inflammatory arguments. “As we have stated for decades, we expect and require prosecutors, as representatives of the state, to refrain from engaging in inflammatory and abusive arguments, to maintain their objectivity, and to behave in a professional manner…” Cardona will be given a new trial, though the death penalty will be in question as the death sentencing procedure in place at the time of the offense has been found to be unconstitutional.
This was Cardona’s second trial, and the first was also thrown out for prosecutorial ‘error’. The court found that the prosecutors failed to disclose additional, contradictory statements, which is a clear violation of the discovery rules. Cardona will still face a third trial, and mandatory life in prison if convicted, even if the death penalty is reinstated.
None of these opinions say that she did not do it, nor that her actions were not horrible. The poor child was found beaten and abandoned, dubbed ‘Baby Lollipops’ by the press as investigators sought to determine who the child was. While the facts are atrocious, and supported the Heinous, Atrocious and Cruel [HAC] findings, the court is simply requiring the state to make appropriate arguments. It often seems that the prosecutors are held to a higher burden of decorum when presenting their case than defense attorneys… I certainly felt that way when I was a prosecutor, but it’s appropriate to ensure that the government act in an appropriate and ethical manner at all times. Any time the freedoms, and especially the life, of a citizen is on the line, there must be no indication of improper influence to obtain a conviction.